WASHINGTON – Robert Gates assumed the helm at the Pentagon on Monday, saying Iraq is his top priority and warning that failure there would be a "calamity" that would haunt the United States for many years.
"All of us want to find a way to bring America's sons and daughters home again," Gates said after taking the oath of office as defense secretary from Vice President Dick Cheney at a Pentagon ceremony. "But as the president has made clear, we simply cannot afford to fail in the Middle East. Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come."
Gates said he intends to travel to Iraq soon to hear the views of U.S. commanders on how to improve the situation, "unvarnished and straight from the shoulder." The remarks seemed to contrast with critics' complaints that the man he replaced, Donald H. Rumsfeld, did not listen enough to the advice of the military's top officers.
President Bush called Gates, 63, "the right man" for the multiple challenges the face in Iraq and in the global war on terrorism.
"We are a nation at war," Bush said. "And I rely on our secretary of defense to provide me with the best possible advice and to help direct our nation's armed force as they engage the enemies of freedom around the world. Bob Gates is the right man to take on these challenges. He'll be an outstanding leader for our men and women in uniform."
Gates assumed the job earlier Monday in a private swearing-in ceremony at the White House, replacing Rumsfeld.
He took office more than month after President Bush announced he was switching Pentagon chiefs, saying he wanted "fresh perspective" on the widely unpopular and costly war and acknowledging the current approach was not working well enough. Rumsfeld was a chief architect of the war strategy and still defends the decision to invade in March 2003.
"You have asked for my candor and my honest counsel at this critical moment in our nation's history, and you will get both," Gates said.
He said that since his Senate confirmation earlier this month he has participated in meetings on Iraq at the White House, received briefings at the Pentagon and held in-depth discussions with the president on ways ahead in Iraq.
Bush is conducting a wide-ranging review of its approach to the war. Bush said last week that he would wait until January to announce his new strategy, to give Gates a chance to offer advice.
Besides the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates faces other immediate challenges. One is the Army's proposal that it be allowed to grow by tens of thousands of soldiers, given the strains it is enduring from the two wars. Rumsfeld had resisted increasing the size of the Army or the Marine Corps; Gates' view is unknown.
It's not yet clear whether Gates intends to immediately shake up the Pentagon by firing generals or replacing senior civilian officials. He has asked Gordon England, the deputy defense secretary, to remain, but some have already announced their departures, including the top intelligence official, Stephen Cambone.
Gates, who had been president of Texas A&M University since 2002, completed his tenure over the weekend by attending three commencement ceremonies on the College Station campus.
At his confirmation hearing, Gates won plaudits for his candor.
Urged by Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is among the most vocal critics of the Iraq war strategy, to "be a standup person" with the courage to push a war policy worthy of the sacrifices endured by troops and their families, Gates assured the committee that he had no intention of going to the Pentagon to be a "bump on a log."
Gates was a member of the Iraq Study Group that spent nine months assessing the situation in Iraq and produced recommendations that include phasing out most U.S. combat troops by 2008. Gates left the commission when Bush announced that he had been picked to replace Rumsfeld.
"In my view, all options are on the table, in terms of how we address this problem in Iraq," Gates said at his confirmation hearing.
Asked point-blank by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., whether the U.S. is winning in Iraq, Gates replied, "No, sir." That contrasted with Bush's remark at an Oct. 25 news conference that, "Absolutely, we're winning."
Gates, a Kansas native, joined the CIA in 1966. He left in 1974 to join the staff of the National Security Council until 1979, when he returned to the spy agency. He rose to deputy director for intelligence in 1982.
His 1987 nomination to head the CIA was scuttled when he was accused of knowing more than he admitted about the Iran-Contra affair. The Reagan administration secretly had sold arms to Iran in hopes of freeing hostages in Lebanon, and used the money to help the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
Gates went to the White House as President Reagan's deputy national security adviser in 1989, then took over the CIA in 1991. He left Washington in 1993 and since August 2002 has been president of Texas A&M University.